Sushanta Roy is a journalist in the north eastern states of Assam and Meghalaya, India, who photographs and writes about the people, animals and flora, and the things that affect them.

Diphu May 14: When eighteen wild elephants were found dead atop Bamuni Hills under Barhampur police station of Assam’s Nagaon district, it was clear the circumstances around the great elephant death were very unusual.

As per reports, the remains of four elephants were found dead lying in the foothills, the rest were spotted atop the hills on Thursday.

Officials Judge Elephant Death Before Autopsy

Bizarrely before conducting any postmortem by competent veterinary, local Forest officials attributed the cause of the elephant deaths to lightning strike. Forest officials meanwhile intervened and initiated an inquisition.

Wildlife experts disagreed with the local Forest officials. They were of the view that without a proper autopsy, it is hard to admit that the elephants died due to a lightning strike.

Elephant expert Vijayananda Choudhury said “Post-mortem reports will reveal the cause of the death of the elephants. However, it does not look like a case of lighting. The death of the elephants might be due to poisoning,”

great elephant death in assam. Photo c/o Nava Thakuria.
Great elephant death in Assam. Photo c/o Nava Thakuria.

Most Elephant Deaths in One Place

In the checkered history of the nation probably such a large number of wild elephants have never died together in a single happening. Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma has already placed Forest and Environment Minister Parimal Suklabaidya to conduct a thorough enquiry to reveal the actual cause behind the death of the wild elephants.

“The incident took place at Bamuni area of Barhampur on Wednesday. Our officials got to know about it on Thursday. Teams of forest and veterinary officials are at the spot to take stock of the tragedy,” Nagaon deputy commissioner Kavitha Padmanabham said to the local press.

“Although lightning has been supposed to be the cause, mass poisoning of the wild elephants cannot be ruled out,” said Bibhab Talukdar, Chief Executive Officer of Aaranyak, a Guwahati-based wildlife NGO.

According to a 2017 census, Assam has an elephant population of 5719 while Karnataka forest accommodates 6049 elephants. Every year, several elephants die in man-animal conflict and the grounds are electrocution, poisonings etc. In 2019, the number of such an elephant death count was nearly 80.

Experts Suspect Foul Play

In the intervening time a local Diphu based English daily reported in its May 12 issue that ‘number of reputed experts, scholars, professors, scientist, politicians, activists, journalists, leaders, social workers, lawyers, film makers, artists, union leaders from across the India, US, Australia and Belgium has vehemently condemned private firm Azure Power Forty Private Limited for allegedly taking over the ancestral land belonging to Karbi and Adivasi tribal farmers of Mikir Bamuni Grant village of Nagaon district in August 2020 for construction of a power plant.’

The report mentioned that the “eminent individuals in their joint press statement asserted that the land in question was cleared and cultivated by the ancestors of these farmers for generations and therefore, they possess inheritable occupancy rights of the land in the form of a Khatiyan that was issued to their families in 1981. “

The report also stated that ‘multiple title suits challenging Azure Power’s claims to ownership over the land are ongoing in Nagaon district court, they pointed out that the land stands as disputed land even if Azure Power has refused to take into account the gross violations involved in sale of the land to them.’

Land Sale

The report has confirmed quoting a press release that “land in question was sold to the private firm by eight family members of the descendants of the grant holder of Mikir Bamuni Grant. This was done in gross violation of the Assam Fixation of Ceiling on Land Holdings Act 1956, by transferring 276 bighas of land to a single family, even as the ceiling limits it to not more than 50 bighas.”

The joint statement declared that “it was done without settling the rights of tenant cultivators to the land, as held under the Assam (Temporarily Settled Areas) Tenancy Act 1971, stating that two key legislations that aim to democratize land ownership in Assam and ensure land to the tiller have been blatantly ignored, violated and trampled on, in order to unlawfully place the land exclusively in the hands of the landowner, who had no right to sell the land to Azure Power in the first place.”

people investigate dead elephants. Photo c/o Nava Thakuria.
People investigating dead elephants. Photo c/o Nava Thakuria.

The press release informed that 14 people were arrested and remanded to judicial custody to be released only 12 days later after razing nearly 200 bighas of ripened paddy crops on October 8, 2020, to take possession of their land by Azure under heavy protection of CRPF. And again on December 9, 2020, 4 villagers were arrested while resisting construction of work on their land after a brutal midnight raid and put them in jail for 63 days while, no action has been taken against Lat Mandal who gave false report that the land in question has not been under cultivation for the last 10 years.

“No action has been taken against the Samaguri Revenue Circle Officer or Deputy Commissioner of Nagaon District who did not settle the rights of the tenant cultivators before placing the land exclusively in the hands of the landholders,” the press statement stated.

Violations in Land Sale

The press statement also mentioned that “Ignoring all the violations involved in the transfer of land to Azure Power, the company has repeatedly used state security forces to bulldoze their way into the village, grab the land, and terrorize the villagers into accepting the power plant. In the latest brazen use of violence to carry out their project, on 10 May 2021, in the middle of the worst peak of the coronavirus pandemic Azure Power has re-entered the village backed with heavy deployment of CRPF once again to terrorize villagers and suppress their right to protest against the theft of their land through coercion, violence and fear. “

Moreover, “they have jeopardized the safety and security of all residents of Mikir Bamuni Grant by bringing in a large number of outsiders at a time when the whole country is reeling from the debilitating impacts of pandemic.”

The intellectual and expert group demanded immediate withdrawal of security personnel of Mikir Bamuni Grant village and its surrounding areas and construction work of the power plant until the issue is legally settled. In addition to these, the group also demanded return of land to the owners and strong action against state officials involved in submitting false reports pertaining to cultivation and tenancy rights in Mikir Bamuni Grant.

The group of 155 signatories includes Medha Patkar of Narmada Bachao Andolan, academic Virginius Xaxa, Prafulla Samantara of Odisha-based Lokshakti Abhiyan, Pune-based environmental researcher Ashish Kothari and ex. Assam Minister Holiram Terang.